The Pashtun Awakening

By Vikram Sood | Updated: Mar 05, 2018 12:38 IST

New Delhi [India], Mar 5 (ANI): The January 2018 murder of a young Pashtun shopkeeper, Naqeebullah Mehsud, in Karachi who aspired to be a fashion model may not have been the spark that lit the flame for a Pashtun Spring but it has certainly set the stage for what many commentators describe as Pashtun awakening. The young Mehsud was killed in a gun battle staged by one of Karachi's notoriously trigger-happy law enforcers. Since then the Pashtun from FATA and the rest of Pakhtunkhwa province have been protesting seeking redress on various issues.

As the angered protesters launched the Pashtun Long March, the authorities' initial response was the usual extra muscular tactic and another Pashtun, Aftab Mehsud, close to the murdered Naqeebullah, was killed in suspicious circumstances in Dera Ismail Khan. Aftabhad earlier organised the protest in Islamabad, where Mehsud tribesmen, tribal elders and youth from South Waziristan gathered to demand the arrest and accountability of Rao Anwar, the police officersuspected to have killed Naqeebullah.

The scope of the demands quickly enlarged to other basic Pashtun demands as the authorities kept the mainstream media, including Urdu TV channels, away from the brewing problem. They seem to have largely complied. However, in the days of the social media the Pashtun have borrowed from the Arab Spring tactics of the Egyptian internet activist WaelGhonim but a number of hashtags - #PashtunLongMarch, #StopPashtunGenocide, #Ihsanuddin, #AftabMehsud #NaqeebMehsud, #PashtunTahafuzMovement, #PashtunUprising and others have been active and have kept the world informed of developments inside FATA and Pakistan. Governments can no longer work in echo chambers.

The Pashtun have been feeling restless for quite some time or a few decades. Since the rise of the Taliban, most of the Pashtun, especially from the FATA region and Afghanistan have been routinely identified with the Taliban. It is true that the Taliban grew from among the Pashtun madrassah alumni of the region in the initial years, but not all Pashtun were Taliban.

In Pakistan's unending battles for control of Afghanistan and America's ill-conceived war on terror, the Pashtun living in FATA and Pakhtunkhwa province have faced triple jeopardy of Taliban depredations, Pakistan government's aggressive antagonism and American drones.

All this led to the rise of Al Qaeda in FATA, the emergence of the Pakistan Taliban and a host of other Pakistani Islamist organisations battling on the same turf. Over the years, Pashtun were repeatedly uprooted from their villages by Pakistani authorities in their so-called war on terror. Their livelihood destroyed, their children received no schooling, and their tightly knit family bonds damaged. In different parts of Pakistan, especially in Punjab and Karachi, Pashtun shopkeepers and labour were frequently arrested on suspicion as security suspects. The price paid by the Pashtun has thus been heavy.

There was a flip side to the displacement. The Pashtuns saw the marked difference between what they had in their lives and the facilities the urban dweller had. The legal systems, the law and order and education available were markedly different from their FCR run systems that provided blanket punishment or reprisal against a family, clan and tribe for actions of an individual.

The protesters this time were not the traditional tribal elders (Malaks) alone but there were many young well-informed educated and politically savvy professionals, seeking an end to the colonial-imperial laws like the abominable Frontier Crimes Regulation under which they were governed by Islamabad. Another demonstration in Peshawar by a large number of professionals seeking employment went unreported. The current movement may have been sparked by the recent killings but Pashtun grievance has been expressed at least since 2015 when there was a demand that Waziristan be freed of the landmines planted indiscriminately by the counter-insurgency forces.

FATA's wounds are not recent but extend back further in Pakistan's history. Not only were the FCR regulations persisted with by the new government Pashtun from FATA were roped in by Mohammed Ali Jinnah and Liaquat Ali Khan to invade Jammu and Kashmir and seize a chunk of Indian territory.

The Pashtun got nothing in return for their loyalty to what was described as an Islamic cause. Later, Zulfiqar Bhutto would toy with the Pashtun to take new battles to Afghanistan in 1973 after the epic 1971 defeat at the hands of the Indians. The Afghan president Najibullah retaliated in the 1980s by reviving the demand for Pashtunistan.

Unable to control Afghanistan and fearing the rise of Pashtun nationalism, after the withdrawal of the Soviets, Pakistan created the Taliban with recruits from the madrassas of NWFP and Balochistan and were supported them from 1994. They were to try to achieve what the Afghan Mujahedeen could not do for Pakistan. For some time the Taliban appeared to have succeeded but the Al Qaeda had their own plans against America.

The US invasion called the global war on terror began in 2001 and nearly seventeen years later, this has become America's longest war. The main sufferers have been the Afghans and the Pashtun on both sides of the Durand Line. Others in Pakistan have suffered too but this has been the result of Pakistan's policies of supporting terror in the neighbourhood.

The Pashtun have had to face ethnic profiling and stereotyping, frequent and massive displacements of populations especially since Pakistan launched its Zarb-e-Azab operation in FATA (about half a million had fled/moved after military operations in 2009); unlawful abductions and detentions by the Pakistan authorities. Resentment has grown in recent years once it became clear that the political leadership was unable to abandon the FCR and other reforms to merge FATA and Pakhtunkhwa. The FCR were seen as a useful weapon to keep the tribes in control. That said what is apparent is the price an ethnic population pays for the adventures and ambitions of a powerful majority population - in FATA, Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan.

Many commentators feel that there is new awakening among the Pashtun. The Pashtun Long March and the ten-day sit-in outside the Islamabad Press Club was meant to kindle that awakening. This was the result of some sustained campaigning by Pashtun activists from FATA, especially North Waziristan. The agency had become home to several Islamist groups and gave the impression that FATA was a jihadi state. The activists have been demanding a return to normalcy and seeking basic amenities - roads, communications, schools, banks and an end to endless harassment by security forces.

There were some early symbols of hope in that Maulana Sami ul Haq, the administrator of the notorious Darul Uloom Haqqani in Akora Khattak, and head of JUI(S) failed to getelected in the just-concluded Senate elections. The rejection of this dean of the Islamists used for jihad may be significant. In another display of Pashtun nationalism, the young have begun adopting new surnames - Pashtun, Pashteen, Pakhtun, or even Pakhtunzai.

Meanwhile, the world will continue to talk about the Rohingyas; talking about human rights in Pakhtunkhwa, FATA or Balochistan is not strategically convenient. The Pashtun have a long lonely fight ahead. (ANI)